special education

Preserving Diversity in Education

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The world’s very first refuge for birds of prey attracts diverse individuals, and we welcome nature lovers, hikers, hawk watchers, native plant enthusiasts, autumn leaf peepers, and conservationists alike. Traditional school students explore our "school in the clouds" and eat lunch at North Lookout while eavesdropping on the hawk counters during the spring and autumn migration seasons. As a staff member, I’ve witnessed visitors become hypnotized by the magic of raptor migration, old friends reunite over trail mix, and first-time visitors fall in love with the landscape and our global mission. Every visitor encounter reminds me that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a very special place and how important it is to preserve special places.

Recently, several groups with special needs investigated the Mountain through an array of multisensory experiences. Students ranging in age from elementary to young adults from Saint Joseph’s Center for Special Learning located in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, and students with visual impairment from the Vision Resource Center of Berks County visited the Sanctuary. As a licensed elementary and special education teacher, my understanding of multiple intelligences, learning styles, and differentiated instruction allows me to offer accommodations that meet the needs of diverse learners.

The Wings of Wonder downstairs gallery provided space to spread our own wings and flap like a falcon, soar like a buteo, and glide effortlessly like a turkey vulture A.K.A Bloodhound of the Sky.

The Wings of Wonder downstairs gallery provided space to spread our own wings and flap like a falcon, soar like a buteo, and glide effortlessly like a turkey vulture A.K.A Bloodhound of the Sky.

The love of teaching and learning, enthusiasm and encouragement allows educators to provide special experiences. Hawk Mountain's programming is inspired to connect ALL visitors with Appalachian forest ecology, highlighting raptors as important bio-indicators of healthy ecosystems. To do this, students were offered an array of sensory experiences including touching feathers, snake skin, turtle shells, and mammal fur. We listened to recordings of the most commonly seen raptor in North America, the red-tailed hawk. Students listened while I waved wings of diurnal hawks in comparison to silent owl wings. Touching the feathered foot of a great-horned owl and carefully examining the scaly toes of a hawk allowed everyone to feel sharp and pointy talons and learn how they serve as tools for catching, gripping and killing prey. It amazed me how engaged everyone was for the entire presentation.

A stroll through the Native Garden offered sounds of green frogs, buzzing pollinators, and songbirds, before heading across the road for more outdoor exploration. Leaving the garden, we enjoyed the aroma of native swamp rose and the faint scent of sunscreen and insect repellant wafting by our group. Channeling our inner turkey vulture, we engaged our olfactory senses and, without hesitation, students shared their thoughts on smelling cigarette smoke and approval of smelling fresh baked bread. Several kids decided to give the turkey vulture a nickname: Bloodhound of the Sky. I approved.

Edwardo helps to illustrate raptor adaptations for his classmates. Since he has family in Mexico, Edwardo was thrilled to learn about our sister site in Veracruz, also known as the River of Raptors!

Edwardo helps to illustrate raptor adaptations for his classmates. Since he has family in Mexico, Edwardo was thrilled to learn about our sister site in Veracruz, also known as the River of Raptors!

Finally, we entered the accessible Silhouette Trail, connecting the trailhead to Laurelwood Niche and South Lookout, allowing all students to explore the ridgetop with ease. As a team, many navigated the trail with the help of wheelchairs and therapeutic personal assistants, others relied on canes or following the voice and arm leading them forward. Instead of ignoring the various tiny bumps and lumps under our feet and wheels, we examined tiny acorn caps, oak tree galls, and snail shells. These extraordinary students reminded me of the importance of appreciating the small things like looking out my window and seeing the lush, green leaves wave at me in the breeze. As we sat in peaceful silence at South Lookout, we felt the warmth of the sun peeking through the forest canopy and enjoyed breathing fresh, unpolluted mountaintop air. No one wanted to leave.

The students said that Hawk Mountain was their favorite place on earth, and I agreed. Every visit makes a difference, and we thank you for your continued support.

Nature's Reverberations

By Rachel Iola Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

What would a perfect day at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary look like to you? Like a page out of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” the outside temperature on the ridgetop was not too hot and not too cold. The humidity was not too high, not too low, the breeze was not too strong, not too weak. You know the story –the conditions for an educational adventure were just right.

Prior to the arrival of my group, I took a sound survey by simply closing my eyes and listening to the environment. Shortly after hearing the sound of a vehicle engine approaching, I welcomed a group of folks from the Vision Resource Center of Berks County, who were accompanied by a handsome and well-trained guide dog named Winston.

We took a seat on the carpeted benches next to the bird feeder station just a few footsteps through the Visitor Center’s front doors. I gazed at the larger-than-life mural of our founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge, as I introduced Hawk Mountain as a Sanctuary, a protected place for all animals, plants, rocks, sticks, and even spiders. I aimed to provide an extra safe place for my group, many who were visiting Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the very first time, and some who had permanent vision loss.

To complement our discussion on raptors and help visualize the amazing animal diversity found in the Appalachian Forest, I passed around feathers, snake skins, turtle shells, and the tail of a gray squirrel, while I introduced my avian coworker to the group. Although we do not allow or encourage touching raptors, as the live bird stood on my gloved hand, I passed around a life-size plastic replica of an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio). We also felt real raptor talons and compared a feathered foot of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) in contrast to the smooth, scaly toes of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). With the aid of real raptor wings, we listened to the noisy wing of a diurnal hawk and felt a gust of air against our cheeks.  In contrast, we struggled to hear the near silent flap of an owl’s wing and agreed that these amazing nocturnal adaptations allow owls hunt with the element of surprise.


In addition to the owls’ adaptation of being silent flyers, we discussed the art of camouflage and how this adaptation helps many animals blend into an environment.  Our group embraced our inner facial disk by listening to several songs of common birds like the eastern towhee and black-capped chickadee with the aid of Audubon bird toys and my very own rendition of a “miniature horse and trill” of an eastern screech owl, which seemed to evoke a soft whimper from the otherwise silent guide dog Winston. I even revealed one of Hollywood’s secrets: bald eagles are actually lip synching to the impressive screams of Red-tailed Hawks when filmed in movies and television. Several folks recognized this familiar call.

Walking outdoors, we encountered a pollinator party—bees buzzing and hummingbirds humming. Okay, they don’t actually hum. The sound of those tiny wings beating is what generates the humming noise that we could hear from the thick patches of bee balm located just in front of the Visitor Center. In the Native Plant Garden, many folks commented on the warmth of the sun and fragrant aroma of blooming swamp rose. I also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to highlight Turkey Vultures as raptors who sniff out their meals with their incredible olfactory sense. We agreed to leave the smell of fresh baked bread and cookies to us and let the Turkey Vultures remain nature’s garbage collectors, cleaning up road kill.


As we explored the pond from the deck, we listened for frogs calling and heard turtles leaving their exposed log perches for the safety of thick patches of water lilies. We enjoyed birds singing from all layers of the forest—delicate warblers hopping after insects in the canopy, catbirds curiously watching us from nearby branches, and the familiar sounds of robins foraging through the leaf litter.

Crossing Hawk Mountain Road was also a new experience for most of these folks. We navigated the crosswalk by listening for on-coming traffic, and I provided a grateful thumbs up and smile to those drivers who slowed down.  We took the Silhouette Trail one step at a time, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest at the benches before reaching our destination at South Lookout. As Winston led the way, he sniffed his way past Mountain Laurels and Rhododendroa to the flat, open area looking down toward the Kempton Valley. Once again my star students could tell they were in an open area since the sun warmed our faces and the soft, gentle breeze rocked the nearby trees. 

Although not everyone could see the view, we all felt the magic of this very special place, the birthplace of raptor conservation.

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